Lost Adams Diggings
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Canyon of Gold
In 1864, a teamster named Adams (no sources disclose his first name) and some prospectors in Gila Bend, Arizona were approached by a Mexican Indian named Gotch Ear, who offered to show them a canyon filled with gold only 10 days ride away. The miners accepted and together they rode to find the gold. They crossed a road on the way which Gotch Ear said would lead back to Fort Wingate, and that they should remember it so they could go back that way for supplies when needed. They soon arrived at a canyon with a blind entrance. At the bottom of a Z-shaped narrow canyon trail they found a creek rich with gold.
The men paid Gotch Ear and began panning for gold. However, a force of Apaches, led by a chief named Nana, confronted the miners. Nana allowed them to mine the creek, provided they did not venture up past the waterfall. The miners obeyed at first, but eventually several miners began mining near the waterfall and discovered two rich veins of gold. The diggings were very rich, with some gold nuggets described as being the size of hens’ eggs.
The miners stored their gold under a stone in the hearth of the cabin they built near the creek. One miner, a German, kept his gold separate. He soon collected all the gold he wanted and left the camp.
Some of the miners were sent to Fort Wingate for more supplies. When this group did not return after eight days, Adams and a man named Davidson rode out to investigate. From the top of the Z-shaped trail, they found five dead men and three dead horses, all that was left of the party that had set out for the fort. Adams and Davidson then returned to their cabin by the creek and found that the Apaches had returned, set fire to their cabin and killed the remaining miners. Adams and Davidson narrowly escaped and walked twelve days through the desert until they stumbled on an army patrol, which took them to the nearest fort. Davidson died there. It was 10 years until Adams overcame his fear and returned to New Mexico to look for the diggings. Adams spent the rest of his life trying to relocate the hidden canyon.
Survivors and origin of legend
Aside from Adams and Davidson, there were two other people who survived the Indian attack- a German, perhaps Jacob Snively, and John Brewer, a member of the LDS church with connections to the Apaches in Mexico and Mormon settlers in NM; both of these figures are known to history for their role in events not involving gold - again both, in addition to Adams, were able to give independent attestation to the same event without the knowledge of the others having survived the massacre. The accounts made by Adams and Brewer are remarkably similar, virtually identical. Jacob Snively relates a story that seems oddly to suppress information; nonetheless, his story bears a strange resemblance. What's more, Adams and Brewer both mention an unnamed and clever, "Dutchman" as being in the original party that departed from southern, Arizona. It is also known for fact that Jacob Snively acquired about $10,000 worth of gold from some source during the early 1860s from a locations he never gave proper account of for later searches. Snively used the money to purchase a ranch in Arizona where he is now buried. For whatever reason Adams spent the last ten years of his life trying to relocate the diggings without success. For an analysis of these issues see Jack Purcell's excellent and true to history book on the Lost Adam's Diggings. Few lost gold stories are as thoroughtly researched as the Lost Adams.
For decades the Zuni Mountains were considered the most plausible location of the diggings. Thousands of prospectors, ranch-hands, and men-of-fortune searched this area and the rest of southwestern New Mexico prior to WWII, as the Adams diggings became the most sought-for gold in the country. Only Frank Dobie's 1939 book Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver adequately describes how renowned the Adams legend had become. The combination of the depression and the deregulation of the gold market prompted the most unlikely people to search for the diggings. Between 1895 and 1930 several large logging communities flourished in the Zuni Mountains, several with schools and post offices; wide-gauge railroads crisscrossed the mountains. The loggers were well aware of the Adams legend, as it had become a nationally known story. Between running logs nothing was more common than prospecting except for drinking. Rumors of gold in the Zunis had become so common that the U.S. government ordered several geological expeditions in the years between WWI and WWII to verify whether this claim could be supported. The geologists found nothing. In the 1950s the area was thoroughly re-explored for uranium during the uranium boom around Grants, New Mexico. Eventually the obsession with the Zuni Mountains as a host for the Adams diggings faded. It was also around the mid-century that the popularity of the Adams legend began to diminish and the Lost Dutchman Mine became America's most sought-for lost gold mine. The Adams diggings were beginning to seem a hoax or a mine unlikely to ever be found.
Geologically, the Adams diggings could only be in the southwestern quadrant of the state. Adams himself spent most of the remainder of his life searching the areas in and around Reserve, New Mexico. This area was the largest gold producing area in the state, and hosted several small mining booms, including the rich strikes at Elizabethtown and Pinos Altos. The areas that could conceivably host the diggings in this region (containing several large mountain ranges that remain sparsely inhabited) are numerous, as minerals and evidence of previous mining can be found throughout the area. Local folklore will tell you that the gold is at the headwaters of either the Black River, the Gila River, or the Prieto River. Spanish Lore will tell you to look to the Blue Mountains. Dozens of mining camps in this region of New Mexico were thought to be the Adams diggings for brief periods, until each proved itself to be less rich than at first indicated: egregious hopes followed by rapid disappointment. That seems to be the story of gold in the desert southwest.
The Datils and Gallinas Mountains and the basins to the north of these mountains were considered possible locations for the diggings that increased in popularity as the other locations lost appeal. Dick French, in his book Four Days from Fort Wingate, places the diggings in this area. It has become known as "Dick French’s area," although his location was known to have been found by others in the 1950s, if not earlier. No gold has been found there.
A similar but geographically less plausible location was found in eastern Arizona by Don Fangado (name?) near Clifton. The site contains features described by Adams much like the area favored by Dick French; however, again, the gold remained undiscovered.
In some minds the gold was to be found on either the Zuni or Navajo reservations, but the laws preventing the acquisition of mineral rights in these regions has discouraged searching. A recent news article has the diggings located in the center of the Navajo Reservation's four sacred mountains; perhaps near Sawmill, Arizona, an area known to be rich in semi-precious stones.
There are other sites, but the leading candidates in the popular imagination are mentioned above. If it really exists, its traditional location remains within "Apacheria" or the southwest quadrant of New Mexico and bordering areas in Arizona. The complexity of the story is detailed in Jack Purcell's definitive book on the subject, The Lost Adams Diggings: Myth, Mystery, and Madness. This work, unlike its predecessors, is a serious attempt to give historical perspective supported by cited research. Purcell believes that the gold exists and is perhaps somewhere in the mountains just south of Quemado, New Mexico. Perhaps gold will be found someday, but in the minds of most, the legend is fading away among the other items in the forgotten annals of American lore.
The many stories arising or deriving from the lost diggings have inspired many to search for lost Apache gold ever since. Its legend has supplied many folk tales, stories and books with ample fuel for fantasies of lost treasures, hidden canyons, Apache secrets and gold, "somewhere out there" in the wilds. Another supposed Indian name for the mine was "Sno-Ta-Hay," which supposedly means, "there it lies" i.e. the gold is on the ground and can be picked up or panned as a placer mine. Chief Nana supposedly called it that when he first warned the Adams party before the attack. As previously mentionded J. Frank Dobie devoted half of his book, "Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver" -now in its ninth printing - to the story of the Lost Adams Diggings, and considered it to be the greatest, "lost mine" story of US history. If the diggings don't exist they sure inspired many strange behaviors on the part of those who allegedly took place in the event and it certainly inspired thousands of searches ever since then. Nobody knows how much energy was spent in toto, by all the people who have sought this gold since the time of Adams, but the amount of mail being sent to western New Mexico during the 1930s prompted the government to create a new post office in the area affectionately named, "Lost Adams Diggings, NM". The site, minus the post office, which later shut down, bear witness to the lust for gold that will never diminish among those who catch the fever which has an indelible quality in the southwestern deserts of the USA.
The movie Mackenna's Gold is loosely based on the Adams legend. Numerous books about, or based on the diggings, have been written.
- J. Frank Dobie, Apache Gold & Yaqui Silver. Boston: Little, Brown. 1939.
- Dick French, Four Days from Fort Wingate.
- Jack Purcell, The Lost Adams Diggings: Myth, Mystery, and Madness. Nine Lives, 2003.